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Plaque commemorating Marie Girardin in Dover, Tasmania. (Photograph courtesy of the Huon Valley News)
Marie Louise was born in the parish of Saint-Louis, Versailles on 29 June 1754. Her father, Jean Girardin was a former royal gardener turned wine merchant. In 1776 she married 26 year old Etienne Lesserteur, a café proprietor at Versailles. She was widowed on 14 July 1781. The only child of the union, Jean, had died on 14 April 1778.
Having given birth to an illegitimate child in the early days of the French revolution (probably 1789 or 1790), Marie Louise left her home in disgrace and travelled to the port of Brest disguised as a man. She carried a letter of introduction to Mme Le Fournier d’Yauville, the widowed sister of Jean-Michel Huon de Kermadec, the 18th century navigator.
Marie Louise, using the alias Louis Girardin, was found a post by Huon de Kermadec as a steward aboard the 74 gun ship Deux Frères. After a threatened mutiny aboard Deux Frères, Huon de Kermadec, then commander of the Esperance, helped her transfer to the Recherche, which was under the command of the well respected Bruny d’Entrecasteaux.
The Esperance and Recherche were about to embark on a voyage whose primary role was to search (unsuccessfully) for fellow Frenchman, La Pérouse, who had vanished after leaving Botany Bay in 1788. The voyage was also a scientific expedition that made a number of significant geographical discoveries, collected a significant natural history collection and made some of the earliest ethnographic observations of the Aboriginal people of Tasmania. For more information on the historical significance of the expedition see the National trust page on the French garden.
Marie Louise was able to successfully hide her true gender because as a steward she was not only exempt from a medical examination, but was also allocated a separate cabin. She sailed from Brest in 1791 without her real identity being discovered.
The expedition reached Recherche Bay on 23 April 1792, probably making Marie Louise the first European woman to visit Tasmania. The French ships sailed for New Caledonia on 28 May 1792. Marie Louise was still with the ship when it returned to Van Diemen’s Land from 21 January to 27 February 1793.
On arrival in the Dutch East Indies the expedition disintegrated after receiving news of the execution of King Louis XVI and France’s descent into war. Journal entries from the La Motte du Portail journal suggest Marie Louise may have formed a relationship with Mérite, a young ensign on the La Recherche. They both died of dysentery within days of each other, Mérite at Batavia and Marie Louise on the Dutch transport Dordrecht on 18 December 1794. On her death the ship’s surgeon revealed her true gender.
Entry originally contributed by Annick Pierette Thomas.
Bruny d’Entrecasteaux: Voyage to Australia and the Pacific 1791-1793, edited and translated by Edward Duyker and Maryse Duyker, Melbourne: Miegunyah Press, 2001, 2006
Australian Dictionary of Biography – Online edition
Articles written about Marie Louise Girardin:
Prosser, Paddy – [Louise Girardin…] in The Far South Bush Telegraph, November 2000, p.21
Earliest European visitors, Huon Valley News, 22 November 2000, p.7
Our daring drag king unveiled, Sunday Tasmanian, 16 January 2005, p.24, 41
Girls will be girls, right?, Sunday Tasmanian, 23 January 2005, p.35
Honour for drag king, Sunday Tasmanian, 30 January 2005, p.13